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Reviewed by:
  • Bulwark of the Republic: The American Militia in [the] Antebellum West
  • Jerry Cooper
Bulwark of the Republic: The American Militia in [the] Antebellum West. By Mary Ellen Rowe. Westport, Conn.: Praeger, 2003. ISBN 0-313-32410-7. Notes. Bibliography. Index. Pp. xii, 232. $69.95.

The traditional militia that existed from the colonial era into the 1850s was "a supremely localist institution," according to Mary Ellen Rowe, best understood when studied at local and state levels. Although powerfully populist and moved by majority opinion the militia was nonetheless constrained by law and embedded in the civil society from which it arose. The militia of colonial and early America moved westward where the "same system took shape . . . virtually unchanged" until the eve of the Civil War (p. xi). In its heyday, Rowe contends, the traditional militia defended local communities from hostile enemies, intrusive state and federal governments, and civil threats to the provincial status quo.

Rowe makes her case by examining the militias of Kentucky, Missouri, and Washington Territory from the 1790s through the 1850s, arguing that Kentuckians took their militia tradition (inherited from colonial Virginia) to Missouri and Missourians carried the institution to the territories of Oregon and Washington. The Bulwark of the Republic meticulously dissects militia affairs in the three locales, sometimes in war, notably in 1812 and 1846, but chiefly assesses Native American and internal threats to local safety and stability. Rowe demonstrates that local militia organizations, often in defiance of state or federal policy, were not vigilantes. Locals took care to elect officers, organize their units according to law, and adhere to conventional military procedure, although they were always ready to seek state and federal authorities' compensation once their unsanctioned actions came to an end. By the 1850s, as seen in Washington Territory, with Regular Army forces policing the Indians and the territorial and federal governments asserting centralized control, the traditional militia had lost its vitality and social purpose. [End Page 235]

Rowe's work is notable for demonstrating that the traditional militia persisted well past the American Revolution, contrary to standard scholarly views, through the careful examination of county and state militia records and accounts. The only way that the militia, in whatever form it existed, can by assessed historically is to study it at the local, colonial, and state level. Rowe's research illustrates how deeply rooted the militia was in local affairs and how it remained a vital part of provincial America well beyond the 1780s. Rowe could strengthen her argument by moving beyond a tight focus on Kentucky, Missouri, and Washington Territory to make comparative observations with other states and territories. Recent studies suggest that Rowe's version of the militia was not a peculiarly sectional one, as she implies, but relatively widespread. Reliance on such works as Charles Skeen's Citizen Soldiers in the War of 1812 (1999) would enhance this insightful study.

It is unfortunate that Praeger and its parent company, Greenwood Press, persist in selling useful monographs at such a high price. Their pricing is a disservice to both authors and their readers.

Jerry Cooper
Emeritus, University of Missouri–St. Louis
St. Louis, Missouri


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pp. 235-236
Launched on MUSE
Open Access
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Archived 2010
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